by Stephanie Koehler
Stephanie Koehler is a journalist and photographer residing in California. She also is an advocate for the Rape Crisis Center. The vision of “Female Perspectives on Ending Sexual Violence” is to unite women all over the world to document the pain they suffer as a result of sexual violence and the healing approach they take to grow from victim to survivor. Each installment includes a photo essay of a female survivor and is a platform to tell her story. Stephanie’s vision is to grow this project into an international sexual assault awareness campaign.
When she was in third grade, Alex’s stepfather asked her whether she knew what the word ‘rapist’ meant. One would think that this is not exactly a term a 9-year-old could fully comprehend. Yet, since elementary school, she witnessed domestic violence toward her mother, and starting at the age of seven her stepfather often came to her room at night and sexually molested her. Over those years Alex also had to endure emotional abuse.
At age 17, before she went off to college, Alex’s mother divorced her stepfather. Now 20, Alex has taken remarkable steps to heal and distance herself from the abuse. She moved to another state when she started college and has since been very involved in various non-profits and humanitarian organizations. She started volunteering at a crisis center in 2009 where her work is empowering to her and she sees that she is empowering other women by helping them. Through her experience she feels “connected with them (sexual violence survivors) and can understand them better than someone without similar experiences.” She explains: “I can sense when someone experiences struggle or doesn’t feel well.”
Part of the Female Perspectives of Ending Sexual Violence project is to show the effects sexual violence has on the survivors, their loved ones, and the communities at large. When asked what effects sexual violence had on her life, Alex’s statement was bold and reflects what many survivors feel. She states: “My body is not a home!” Alex’s sensitivity and awareness of her body and body image has increased and she describes physical symptoms such as tickling in her arms and pain in her joints.
Sexual violence runs in Alex’s family. Both her mother and grandmother endured it, and Alex has been in several unhealthy relationships where her boundaries were not respected. She says: “I have a difficult time to keep my boundaries clear.” The awareness and knowledge that she may have carried one relationship too long is a step in the right direction. Hopefully it will enable her to claim her rights and disengage from people that are not good for her sooner. It is, however, a learning process. Part of Alex’s healing process is to learn how to fully embrace her own body, and this takes time as healing mostly happens in stages.
Alex finds creative writing an outlet to process her emotions. “Creative writing creates a portable safe-space,” she says. “It makes experiences digestible, tangible. When playing with words, searching for forms, I have the opportunity to notice new pieces of myself. If I don't feel ready, I know that there's time. Thoughts pour out when they feel ready to. Ultimately, it gives me a frame for speaking beyond pages.”
She composes poetry and at times also writes letters to herself. I feel privileged that she was open to share one of her poems, written at the time of this interview, for this article.
Fix me, doctor
I found holes in my chest
Landmines that puncture every breath
With an untold story
Please, fix me doctor
I found tingling in my arms and legs
A grip that holds my body so close to the Earth
All of this pain seems natural
Please, please fix me doctor
I want a piece a paper to say
I was not born with the weight the containment
Of broken chairs and everlasting fevers
I was not born sick
It found me, it found me
It pounded itself into me
This infection that I cannot give a name to
Today I couldn't feel my jaw
The silence keeps it tight
Yesterday I couldn't open my eyes
Because some things aren't worth facing twice
No one told me that it was hereditary
Three generations of women could not find a cure
Three generations of women raped empty
After my tenth visit to the hospital:
Alex feels it is important for survivors to speak about their experiences. “When there is silence there is shame, and it protects no one. However, this takes finding the line between feeling uncomfortable and feeling unsafe. Discomfort promotes growth, it stretches us. Survivors should never feel unsafe when speaking - most feel unsafe enough within their own bodies.”
In Alex’s opinion, awareness of sexual violence is heightened through grass root projects such as this and through organizations that focus on such violence. Alex says, “It’s from the bottom-up that you can make a difference. Bottom-up activism is most effective because it empowers insiders and gives opportunity for solidarity for outsiders. It makes a cause or a movement representational, from a people, which will bring about long lasting and more effective change. The change becomes cultural, and not just institutional.”
I always wondered what motivates people to make a difference in people’s lives. Alex recalls how her interest in helping others was sparked: “The first time I felt connected with another woman, while doing humanitarian work, was my senior year of high school when I was working at a hospital. Her name was Dorothy. She told me stories of her childhood - one of which piqued my interest. Throughout her entire life, Dorothy had always wanted to learn how to play the piano, but her father had to sell theirs before she was old enough to learn.” Alex says: “I went home during my lunch break and returned to the hospital with my keyboard. I had never seen someone's age melt off so quickly and watch their fingertips tremble. Learning how to play "Mary Had A Little Lamb" did not make her (Dorothy) say thanks. It was because someone listened. That sparked something in me.”
Alex has always enjoyed helping others, but her personal experience with sexual violence enhanced her awareness and her urge to be involved with survivors. Alex’s affirmation “Children are born with chest full of birds," inspired by a poem by Andrea Gibson, feels like an invitation to soar for higher plateaus and to never give up on one’s own dreams. I feel blessed that she contacted me to be part of the project and believe we can learn a lot from her.
I encourage women and men alike to follow Alex’s example and become involved with local grassroot organizations. Or just help by spreading the word. I do believe in the power of one and hope that if we motivate enough people, we will activate social change. My belief is that participating in this project will result in a sense of unity, not only with other survivors, but also with the world at large.
Worldwide inquiries about this project are welcome. Participation is voluntary and the scope of each photo shoot and interview is determined with each participant to ensure women’s boundaries are honored and respected. To participate in this project or for more information, please contact me at email@example.com.
Click here to read the first installment of Female Perspectives on Ending Sexual Violence: Choosing Peace over Fear.
About the Author:
Stephanie Koehler is a journalist and photographer residing in California; she also advocates for a local Rape Crisis Center. Born and raised in Germany, she earned her Master’s Degree in Linguistics from Bergische Universitaet & Gesamthochschule Wuppertal, Germany. Some of her photography can be seen at Heart-Filled Productions.